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Bernie: Redbirds consider six-man rotation

Bernie: Redbirds consider six-man rotation

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Cardinals v Cubs

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny signals for a relief pitcher as he pulls starter Carlos Martinez (18) from the May 4 game at Busch Stadium. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

With resident ace and workhorse Adam Wainwright down for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, the Cardinals are contemplating a six-man rotation. The idea is being discussed by GM John Mozeliak, manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.

“It’s not something we would rule out,” Mozeliak said Saturday. “It’s something we’ve talked about, but we haven’t decided if that’s the best option for us. It’s something I think a lot about, and I know Mike and ‘Lilly’ do too. It’s on the table.”

Why go with a six-man rotation instead of five?

Innings.

When Wainwright suffered his injury April 25th, the Cardinals lost one of the top starters in the majors. And they also lost the 200-plus innings that Wainwright provides.

The Cards can put someone in Waino's rotation spot, but filling the innings void is a difficult challenge. Veterans John Lackey and Lance Lynn can supply 200 innings apiece, but the team’s setpoint for young starters Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez is considerably lower by design.

Going into the season, Mozeliak’s projections had at least 200 innings each from Wainwright, Lynn, and Lackey. And Mozeliak estimated a combined 300 innings from Wacha and Martinez.

That adds up to 900 innings. Had the original five-man rotation remained intact, it wouldn’t have covered the regular-season requirement for about 980 rotation innings — the average output from starting pitchers over Matheny’s first three seasons.

Before Wainwright fell, Mozeliak planned for pitchers jump in with spot starts to supplement the 300-inning maximum placed on Wacha and Martinez. With Wainwright absence, the innings deficit is larger.

The Cardinals must come up with the filler innings in a way that won't overextend Wacha and Martinez. 

The conservative approach with young starters, common among MLB teams, reduces the strain on their arms and may help prevent significant injuries. .

After last summer’s shoulder-injury scare with Wacha, the Cardinals are set on a handle-with-care philosophy with Wacha and Martinez. 

“It’s a fragile environment,” Mozeliak said. “And we want to get as much as we can from our young starters without pushing them beyond their limits and putting them at greater risk of injury.”

With no Waino, the proactive attempt to preserve Wacha (5-0, 2.09 ERA) takes on added importance. If you remember Wacha's epic 2013 postseason, then you''ll agree it's imperative to have him fresh in October.

By my rough estimate the Cardinals went into Saturday's game needing to cover around 800 starter innings the rest of the way. If everyone stays healthy the Cards can expect around 330 innings from Lynn and Lackey, and 230 innings from Wacha and Martinez.

That totals 560 of the necessary 800 innings, with 240 innings unclaimed.

Short of Mozeliak making a trade for an innings-consuming starter, there are two ways to attain that:

• Go with a straight six-man rotation, with Jaime Garcia and Marco Gonzales teaming for a combined 240 innings. Of course, that depends on Garcia’s health and viability. If Garcia cracks, the Cards would turn to Tyler Lyons or another young starter from Triple A Memphis.

• Stay with a five-man rotation, which keeps Lynn and Lackey in their normal routine of pitching on four days’ rest. The five would likely include Garcia, if he can go to the post. And when the Cards periodically skipped a Wacha or Martinez start to slow their accumulation of innings, Gonzales or another young starter would be summoned to handle the assignment.

“We’re trying to decide if it’s best to go with a six-man rotation or find another way of banking the innings,” Mozeliak said. “The upside to a six-man rotation is that it allows you to protect some pitchers.”

Mozeliak also talked about the potential downside of a six-man format.

It would disrupt veterans Lackey and Lynn by breaking their preferred template of pitching every fifth day.

But by choosing the spot-starter option to spell Wacha and Martinez, Lynn and Lackey could remain on schedule and make more starts.

“This allows Lynn and Lackey to stay in their normal routines, and then you manipulate the rest of the group,” Mozeliak said.

A six-man rotation creates other issues.

Six starters means subtracting a relief pitcher or backup position player. And the six-man setup cranks out fewer starts from your best guys.

Then again ... 

Go with six starters you probably won’t have to skip any Wacha starts, and he wouldn’t pile up excess innings. This theory would also apply to Martinez — but only if he still warrants a rotation spot. Martinez was awful in Saturday night's 7-5 loss at Pittsburgh, making it two consecutive terrible starts for him. Is Baby Pedro on tilt? 

With a six-shooter rotation the fragile, surgically-repaired Garcia would have the benefit of an extra day of rest before each turn. And a six-starter alignment would leave Lynn and Lackey with a fuller tank for October. 

In their first 14 games sans Wainwright the Cardinals rotation has experienced deterioration, drifting to an ugly 5.15 ERA and only seven quality starts, with three of the seven coming from Lackey. 

A trade for a bulk-innings starter — or an elite starter — is a possibility, but later. Garcia and Gonzales are making rehab starts at Memphis this weekend, and Mozeliak believes they’re capable of providing an internal solution.

“And," Mozeliak said, "at least they can buy us some time." 

If the Cardinals plan to stick with five starters (minus Lyons), Mozeliak confirms that a fit Garcia would get the call over Gonzales. 

“If Jaime is good to go, we’ll try to find a spot in the rotation for him,” Mozeliak said. “When he’s been healthy, Jaime has been a very good pitcher.”

That doesn’t mean Gonzales is left out. He could work in relief in St. Louis. He could replace a struggling Martinez if necessary. And if the rotation is damaged by another injury, Gonzales is the obvious plug-in.

Mozeliak has many factors to consider here. 

Choosing between a five-man rotation, supplemented by spot starters. Or a six-man rotation to spread out the innings and keep young arms sound.

What's are the potential negatives with altering the starters’ normal regimen?

What are the realistic odds of a successful and lasting Garcia comeback?

Can Martinez pull himself together?

This prompts another question: With reliever Jordan Walden (shoulder) expected to be out for at least two months, does it make sense to transfer Martinez to the bullpen to serve as an eighth-inning blow torch?

When Gonzales is prepared to return _ and he clearly isn't ready yet  _ where does he fit? And is Gonzales more vulnerable after recently being shut down due to soreness in his left pectoral-shoulder area? 

What would a sixth-man rotation do to the team's bullpen-bench configuration?

Will Mozeliak stay calm and press on with the organization's current collection of starting pitchers _ or does the GM aggressively enter the sweepstakes and go for a big trade? If the St. Louis rotation continues to slip, a trade becomes more mandatory than optional.

That's a lot of questions for a 22-8 team, but they're all legitimate. Let the discussions and debates begin.

• Video lowlights: Pirates hold off Cardinals for win

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Bernie Miklasz is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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